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Booze and Brews: Proposed bills could change Oklahoma's alcohol laws

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Closeup selection of merchandise in the supermarket - BIGSTOCK
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Editor’s note: Booze and brews is an Oklahoma Gazette series examining our state’s beer and liquor laws.

Change is coming. Maybe. After countless efforts over the years, it looks like 2016 might be the year for serious reforms to Oklahoma’s archaic wine and beer laws.

Senate Joint Resolution 68 (SJR68), authored by Sen. Clark Jolley, R-Edmond, passed the Senate March 1 by a vote of 28-16.

Now awaiting debate in the House of Representatives, the resolution would put to the people a state question that could repeal parts of the state constitution — sections 1-10 of Article XXVIII — that mandate 3.2 beer and prohibit strong beer and wine sales in grocery and convenience stores.

Retail Liquor Association of Oklahoma and the Wal-Mart-funded Oklahomans for Consumer Freedom coalition each have put forward competing initiative petitions to put state questions before voters in November.

But Shawn Ashley, news director for eCapitol legislative tracking service, said change is far from a sure thing.

While buzz for a change to the state’s alcohol sales laws has not been this strong since Prohibition, legislative attempts at reform are not new.

Ashley said bills allowing for grocery and convenience store salers of strong beer and wine pop up over the years but never make it very far. Often, these bills are not even granted hearings.

“Wherever there was an opportunity for a bill to die, it has died there and never made it to the governor’s desk or the public for a vote of the people,” he said.

Instead, piecemeal reform has come in recent years in the form of laws allowing breweries and wineries to offer tastings and sell their products on-site. Less than 20 years ago, those things were prohibited.

Current reform efforts are backed by some of the state’s younger legislators, and in addition to new perspective, Ashley pointed out that natural development in the state’s alcohol industry has prompted a stronger call for change. A rise of people moving here from out of state brings a rise in expectations for Oklahoma’s laws to match standards in other states.

Ashley acknowledged that reform efforts from Jolley and Sen. Stephanie Bice, R-Oklahoma City, would be big changes and any outcome will result in winners and losers.

“The thing about lawmaking is that if it really doesn’t work, if it really hurts someone and their business, there are ways to fix it in the future,” he said.

What SJR68 seeks to repeal, Senate Bill 383 (SB383), authored by Bice, would replace in state statute, which also would make the laws easier to amend by legislators without a vote of the people.

“The challenge is that 3.2 beer is part of our Constitution,” Bice said. “That was written in 1959. Because of that, if we want to make any changes, it can’t just be legislative; it has to go to a vote of the people.”

SJR68 would put it on the ballot. Bice said SB383 is the nuts and bolts and is currently working its way through the Senate.

If approved, the new laws would:

>> allow strong beer and wine sales in grocery and convenience stores.

>> allow liquor, grocery and convenience stores to sell chilled strong beer and wine.

>> give Oklahoma’s small breweries the right to distribute their products

on their premises and to stores without going through a distributor.

>> allow retail liquor stores to sell items that a grocery store would carry as long as the other items don’t make up more than 20 percent of the store’s total sales.

>> outlaw common ownership of alcohol manufacturing, wholesale and retail operations in the state for larger breweries, except for Anheuser-Busch, which could keep distribution centers in Oklahoma City and Tulsa.

Initiative petitions

Initiative petitions are complicating matters. Oklahomans for Consumer Freedom (OCF) put forth a petition that would “backstop,” or reinforce, the efforts of SJR68 and SB383 in case the bills fail to make it through the Legislature.

OCF’s language does vary slightly, dropping the amount of sales allowed to be grocery or convenience items in liquor stores from 20 percent to 10 percent.

Retail Liquor Association of Oklahoma’s proposal would retain the ability for grocery and convenience stores to sell strong beer and wine and for local breweries to distribute their products, but also would allow liquor stores to sell nonalcoholic items without an income restriction and would end the prohibition on liquor store sales on Sundays and holidays (excluding Thanksgiving and Christmas).

It would also provide funding for the Alcoholic Beverage Laws Enforcement Commission (ABLE) and the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.

Next week, part two of Oklahoma Gazette’s Booze and brews series focuses on stakeholders at breweries, wineries, liquor stores and distributors and how proposed laws could impact jobs, prices and selection.

More change

Logan County overturned an outdated law on March 1 when residents voted to lift the county’s restriction on liquor-by-the-drink sales on Sundays. The county question, which 61 percent of the electorate approved, also allows drink sales on July 4, Labor Day, Memorial Day and Thanksgiving. It is still illegal to sell liquor drinks on Easter and Christmas.

Print headline: Booze and brews, This could be the year for alcohol reform in Oklahoma, but nothing is certain yet.

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